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Posts Tagged ‘Bacchus by Michelangelo’

Of an afternoon in summer Florence, the wide streets connecting the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria, the Ponte Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti, are filled with visitors. Along the Via dei Calzaiuoli is one of the often overlooked treasures of the Renaissance, the church of Orsanmichele.

Built by the many, and powerful, trade guilds of the city, it is an edifice typical of the Renaissance in its

Donatello St. George Orsanmichele Florence

Donatello
St. George
Orsanmichele Florence

unification of religious purpose and civic power.

Bacchus Michelangelo Bargello, Florence

Bacchus
Michelangelo
Bargello, Florence

This is the story of how Donatello’s St. George (1420) spent time with Michelangelo’s Bacchus (1496-1497) during one of the darkest periods of art history.

In a niche created in the exterior walls of Orsanmichele, rests Donatello’s St. George. A masterpiece of early Renaissance sculpture, it was one of the first works by a maestro whose enormous talents forever changed the world of art.  Buonarotti shared with many of his contemporaries profound respect for Donatello’s incredible skill.

Across the center of Florence, rests one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, his Bacchus. Created for a Cardinal of the Catholic Church in Rome, who rejected the work on initial viewing, the statue was returned to Florence where it has remained.

How did these two works of art, located across the city of Florence, ever “meet”? Read on.

Fast forward to the early years of the Second World War. The German’s, in partnership with their Italian allies, began a systematic and targeted removal of much of Florence’s art. From the Uffizi went works by Botticelli, Rubens and Mantegna. From the Museum of the Works of the Duomo went works by such Renaissance masters as Donatello, Michelangelo and Della Robbia. From the niche on the walls of Orsanmichele went St. George and from the Bargello went Bacchus.

As Allied forces began their landings at Salerno and Anzio, those works of art taken from museums all across Italy began to move north. German forces,  in response to orders from numerous quarters of the Nazi regime, placed the pilfered treasures in ‘safe havens’ across northern Italy and southern Germany.

Deane Keller Monuments Men

Deane Keller
Monuments Men

Frederick Hartt Monuments Men

Frederick Hartt
Monuments Men

It was in 1943 that an American artist and Yale art professor, Deane Keller, along with 345 other passionate and dedicated art historians, to include Frederick Hartt, joined the US Armed forces. They were tasked with the onerous responsibility of locating masterpieces taken by the Germans from museums and private collections across Italy.

As if the terrible confusion of the war zone was not enough, this small group of exceptionally creative and dedicated men and women had to deal with little, if any, budget, acquisition of resources as they needed them (and often, those resources were barely sufficient to the tasks at hand) and the pressures of time in securing masterpieces of art before they were lost.

Here is just one story of the innumerable successes achieved by this group:

In the course of pursuing a shipment suspected of containing the finest Renaissance masterpieces from the Uffizi and other Florence museums, the team of “Monuments Men” as they came to be called, received reliable information that the cache was located in the Castle of Neumelans (1582-1583) in the tiny northern Italian Tyrol village of Campo Tures. The secreted store of treasures was, indeed, there.

The discovery of the trove of art in the castle was eclipsed, however, by the treasures in the fortification’s nearby carriage house. In crates created years before were, among countless masterpieces,  Donatello’s St. George and Michelangelo’s Bacchus.

Further investigations yielded yet another highly valued shipment, stored in the village of San Leonardo, near the city of Trieste.

In total, when the treasures were inventoried and the shipment prepared for its triumphant return to Florence, the 1946 valuation was over $500,000,000.00. When the convoy of trucks carrying the irreplaceable art arrived in the Piazza della Signoria, the sense of closure, relief and of civilization’s victory was palpable.

As I stand at the base of Donatello’s St. George, or study the lines of Michelangelo’s Bacchus, I see not only the work of masters; I see cold nights in alpine villages, dark rooms where men, enemies or not, protected our civilization’s storied past and I recall tales of plunder and triumph.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

If you are interested in learning more about the Monuments Men, please visit The Monuments Men Foundation, established by Robert M. Edsel, author of the books mentioned in this article.

Monuments Men Foundation

Robert M. Edsel, who is the founder of the Monuments Men Foundation, was also the co-producer of the awarded documentary, The Rape of Europa. This fascinating documentary  tells the story of Nazi Germany’s plundering of Europe’s great works of art during World War II and Allied efforts to minimize the damage.

The Monuments Men is a film directed by George Clooney, scheduled for release later this year.

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Michelangelo. It is a name that conjures images of paint strained eyes, of angry popes and of marble dust.

MichelangeloBacchus, 1496-1497

Michelangelo
Bacchus, 1496-1497

The Bacchus, an unusual and controversial work, was created by Michelangelo between 1496 and 1497, when the young artist was twenty years old.  The commission came from a rather unexpected source, that of Raffaele Sansoni Galeoti Riario, who became Cardinal Riario. Passionate about sculpture and, in particular his garden, Riario had commissioned the piece to add to his home sculpture garden in the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome.

Palazzo della Cancelleria

Palazzo della Cancelleria

An interesting side story to this commission. Riario was sold a sleeping cupid as a true piece of ancient Roman art. The connoisseurship of the Cardinal was widely known and he, eventually, discovered that the piece had been carved by Michelangelo. Upset though Riario may have been, he was also an astute businessman. It was his orders that brought Michelangelo to Rome where the artist worked for most of the remaining years of his life.

As the photo of the Cancelleria, the Chancellery of the Vatican, attests, Riario had enormous financial resources available to support his commissions.

Upon seeing the Bacchus, however, Riario’s reaction was not dissimilar to words penned by Percy Shelley many years later, “It looks drunken, brutal, and narrow-minded, and has an expression of dissoluteness the most revolting.”

Riario hated the work and refused to accept it. However, an associate of his at the Vatican, one Jacopo Galli, Riario’s banker, patron and friend of Michelangelo, paid for the commission and placed it in his private collection.

It was not until 1847 that the statue was transferred to Florence where it now resides in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence.

Bacchus, FaceMichelangelo

Bacchus, Face
Michelangelo

It is a strange work, to say the least. The expression of Bacchus, the asexual nature of his body, the posture of drunkenness he displays were all brilliant and intentional marks of a master artist. What offended Riario and what often offends people to this day is that the statue does not fit most people’s expectations of a god. Human in every aspect, with a grape-eating faun at this side, was – I believe – a not too indirect way for Michelangelo to portray his view of Riario as a person and, perhaps, the church in general.

Known to be exacerbating, difficult, unpredictably  emotional, the young sculptor may have seen this commission as a way of communicating his disdain for the patrons of his youth. It may have galled Michelangelo to know that a sleeping cupid had been the means by which orders came from Pope Julius II, one of Riario’s relatives, for the artist to report to Rome.

When you are in Florence, be sure to take a morning (see open hours below IF YOU GO) to explore the galleries in the Bargello Museum. The Ground floor gallery houses many pieces of remarkable sculpture, the Bacchus among them. The second floor galleries house Donatello’s David, works by the Della Robbia workshop and many other treasures of Renaissance art.

IF YOU GO:

Museo Nazionale el Bargello

Via del Proconsolo, 4

50122 Florence

Tel: +39.055.238.8606

Tickets: Euro 4.00 per person

Web: Bargello Firenze

Open Hours: Please note the very specific hours that the museum is open: 8:15AM – 1:50PM Daily with the exception of:

Closed, 1st, 3rd, 5th Sunday of the month, Closed 2nd and 4th Monday of the month and closed January 1, May 1, and December 25

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